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Iraq's civil war makes for intimate enemies

In Baghdad, a Sunni in a Shiite enclave finds that old friendships can evaporate, leaving only a desire for vengeance.

September 16, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When a friend from the old neighborhood rang Abu Ali after sunrise one day this month to tell him that his house had been destroyed, the middle-aged Sunni confessed to himself that he felt happy.

He turned to his wife in bed and told her that the Americans had flattened their home in the Washash neighborhood and killed some of the Shiite militia members who had kicked them out last September.

They were people he had lived next to for years, people he had said hello to every day.

People who had killed his teenage son three months ago, leaving him with a bullet hole in his eye and forehead.

"God took our revenge for us," his wife, a Shiite, answered.

He thought about the friend who had called him with the news. His name was Sattar, and like the men who killed his son, he was a member of Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

He replayed their conversation in his head.

"These are the same men who stole my house and killed my son," Abu Ali, who didn't want his formal name used, had blurted into the receiver.

His friend fired back: "What about the women and children who were there?"

"This is God's will," he answered. "They deserved what happened."

The two said goodbye. It was normal for them to talk, and Sattar would call back later with more information about the damage.

The two men had been friends for 10 years, and they were friends still, despite Sattar's alliance with the locals who had forced Abu Ali from his home. Sattar remained loyal because Abu Ali had stood up for him when Sattar's own brothers tried to cheat their sibling out of money. Still, Abu Ali thought that his old friend was easily frightened and would never help him in times of danger.

Their friendship shows the very intimate nature of the war in Iraq -- a war in which your enemies are often people you've known much of your life; in which your neighbors are often behind the crimes committed against you; in which every slight, every misdeed, every injustice is recorded and the desire for vengeance runs deep.


Segregation spreads

As U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and President Bush laud the success of the Baghdad security plan and hail the start of a return to normality, the Iraqi capital is awash with at least 171,000 displaced people, including Abu Ali. Many Sunnis and Shiites have retreated to virtually segregated districts sealed off by blast walls and razor wire to protect themselves from their rival religious sect.

Even U.S. commanders in Iraq acknowledge that there is no easy way to repair the damage of the country's civil war, no easy way to return people to their old lives. They say that whatever comes next in Baghdad will be a break from the past.

The morning his home was destroyed, friends started visiting Abu Ali at 8 a.m. in Ghazaliya, where he had lived for a year. Everyone asked him the same question: Would the Americans compensate him?

At noon, the satellite news channels started broadcasting video of the gutted block. Only then did his wife start crying. People from Washash said that innocent civilians had been killed, but the U.S. military said fighters had sprayed gunfire from rooftops. Police put the death toll at 14.

Abu Ali didn't even care that the house was gone. He associated it with his dead son, Ali.

"Everything is a bad memory," he said.

He had lived on a quiet side street in Washash. It was affordable on what he earned running a small textile shop that manufactured women's clothing. He had even gotten along well with the Mahdi Army. Some of his neighbors had joined the militia and he readily paid the protection fee of $3 a month for them to guard his district.

"It was a good arrangement," he said.


Mosque is bombed

Then, in February 2006, the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra changed everything. The militia began targeting Sunnis, and Abu Ali watched as his friends and acquaintances started to vanish. An Arabic-language teacher at Washash's Dakar secondary school was standing outside when men in a car raked him with bullets.

"He was very old. He even taught those a bit younger than me," Abu Ali said. "He'd scold his students on the street for smoking cigarettes. If they saw him coming, they would throw them away out of respect."

Some militiamen decided to kill the local drunk, a Shiite named Abbas, who was frequently seen strolling the neighborhood and whose favorite drink was arrack. Six months after Abu Ali fled Washash, his favorite cobbler was killed when militiamen found him drinking alcohol in the area's date orchards.

"Maybe 100 people I know were killed in Washash, if you count both Sunnis and Shiites," he said about his neighborhood in western Baghdad, which was a mixed area, with more Shiites than Sunnis.

But Abu Ali thought he was safe. Everyone loved him and his six sons and two daughters. He was confident that his neighbors would not betray him. Most of the young men on his street had joined the Mahdi Army, but he had been good to everybody.

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